Ironclad rules are pretty rare in international relations, but here’s a solid bet: any day where the prospect of a crisis with Iran recedes is a good one, and this weekend we got one of those. The six major powers negotiating with Iran to halt the expansion of its uranium enrichment got a six-month agreement that, it’s hoped, will be the first step towards a more comprehensive negotiation.
The agreement itself is notable mainly for the fact that it exists, rather than for its particulars. Iran will get to keep its currently operating centrifuges, and will be allowed to enrich uranium up to the five percent threshold—enough for electricity generation, but not weapons manufacture. The reaction in Washington has been uniformly critical, as Republicans revert to their natural posture of preferring to bomb anywhere with minarets.
In Iran, the deal is being viewed much more warmly, as Iranians start to realize it might be possible to live in a country that’s “normal” in the international world. Even so, you might think being reduced to tears over a six-month interim agreement might be overdoing it, until you realize that, unlike the US, UK, France, Germany, and China, Iran has actually had the experience of modern warfare. (Russia, the final member of the six-power talks, can claim some recent experiences.) Iran has never actually been under any illusions as to who would get the worst of it in a war with the United States, and given the number of families who lost people in the war with Iraq, there’s a domestic constituency for peace—not least the massive generation of young people who know that it’s their lives on the line.
And it’s important to remember that domestic politics matter here. While the American far right works itself into a frenzy over fictional Islam-crazed mullahs just itching to get their hands on a bomb so they can bring about the Final Solution, it turns out that elections matter even in countries where they mostly don’t matter. If relaxing the grip of economic sanctions buoys the Iranian economy, that doesn’t just give the average Iranian a stake in peace: it strengthens the hands of its newly elected moderates struggling to keep the hardliners at bay.
There are, naturally, issues to be resolved. Those hardliners may insist that the Islamic Republic still push to retain at least a “threshold” capacity, where Tehran can build itself a small arsenal in a matter of months but stop short of actually doing so until the next Middle East crisis.
We don’t have a lot of direct influence with Iran’s hardliners (by definition), but in the west we could do some good work by shouting down our own hardliners and the think-tanks for washed-up Bush appointees that employ them. That John Bolton thinks the Iran deal is a bad one is probably the single-best endorsement for it, given how wrong Bolton and everyone who worked with him was about the politics of the Gulf for eight long years.
Bolton wants Iran permanently barred from ever enriching any uranium, ever. There are many reasons why that’s unlikely, but it speaks to the psychology of this shadow war: that Iran is not now and can never be a normal country, allowed to do the things normal countries do. Or, more coarsely, that the only way out of this for Iran is abject surrender or destruction.
Abraham Lincoln, when berated for not demonizing the Confederates sufficiently for some people’s liking, replied, “do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Lincoln wasn’t above crying havoc when needed, but he also understood something we would do well to remember today: the first step in getting beyond war (or the threat of war) is changing our own perception.